Development & Aid, Education, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

TECHNOLOGY-BRAZIL: E-Waste Can Produce Marvels

Clarinha Glock* - IPS/IFEJ

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Apr 25 2009 (IPS) - Using pieces from all sorts of useless equipment, students at the Computer Recovery Centre in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre have put 1,700 computers into operation in three years.

Student Keith Garcia Reges in action. Credit: Clarinha Glock/IPS

Student Keith Garcia Reges in action. Credit: Clarinha Glock/IPS

By the end of 2009 they should reach 2,500 computers, which will be distributed to schools, day care centres, non-governmental organisations and computer centres, bringing technology to people who otherwise have little or no access to it in this city of 1.5 million people, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state.

CRC’s raw material is electronic waste from the federal government, banks, private companies and individuals, who get rid of outdated computers to make way for newer ones, or because they aren’t able to repair the ones they have.

Before, these computers, printers and tech accessories would have been dumped in landfills, but now they are seeing an extension of their useful life, or are even recycled as part of works of art.

The project is part of the Brazilian Programme for Digital Inclusion and emerged from a partnership between the Ministry of Planning and the Marist Network for Education and Solidarity, part of the Roman Catholic order of Marist Brothers.

Centres like the one in Porto Alegre have also opened in the states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo, and in the federal district of Brasilia, the capital.

As in the others, CRC of Porto Alegre is located in a poor suburb. There, 88 young people from low-income families receive a scholarship that allows them to learn to dismantle, recondition, adapt and rebuild equipment, install free software, and programme and configure computers.

But, most important, they discover the value of each part in the process, not just of the computers, but also of themselves as citizens. “The course is important for its professional side and the personal side, because here people interact,” says Keith Garcia Reges, 16.

In the “disposable era,” these students are an exception. “We stop throwing away many things and we learn to use more of what we have at home,” says the youth. There are few people who can poke around inside a computer without fear of breaking something, but at CRC they have learned that anything can be fixed.

Reges repairs computers, mobile phone rechargers, speakers and fans. And the knowledge multiplies. Reges invited two classmates to present their work on electronic waste in a demonstration at the local school.

In the pavilion at the Marist Social Centre (Cesmar) in the city, Rafael de Vasconcelos, a 17-year-old who is passionate about robotics, went even further. He began as a volunteer when he was 15, working as a class monitor, then was hired as an apprentice and is now a teacher. With the scholarship money he is paying for his studies in electrical engineering at the university.

“When I’m in class, I’m happy to see that I’m learning to mix these things that help improve the world,” he said.

Vasconcelos, who fixes old computers, is aware that manufacturing a new computer has more costs for the environment than consumers imagine.

Everything that arrives at CRC is put to use. Many pieces that cannot be repaired are dismantled and are studied in the robotics classes – the world of Vasconcelos.

Anyone who sees the mountain of junked electronic slot machines on the Cesmar patio is unlikely to realise the number of products created from the illegal gambling machines, seized by the federal tax authorities and donated under one condition: re-use the materials.

Vasconcelos proudly tells how he transformed an old computer screen into an illuminated sign. “It took us two months to map out the electronic part, and then we plugged in the computer’s parallel port and made a programme to post words and letters,” he explained, mixing English technical jargon with his native Portuguese.

The knowledge acquired is passed on to the new students. The wooden parts of the slot machines will also be used to make stools, decorations and tables, in a new project this year to create new jobs and income.

In the back of CRC, electronic waste that cannot be returned to technological use is turned into art. The cover of an enormous, outdated IBM computer becomes a graffiti-covered work of art with an Easter theme, which decorated Cesmar during Holy Week.

When it was new, 12 years ago, the computer cost 27,000 dollars, noted Tarcísio Postingher, the centre’s technical coordinator. “The technology evolved so much that it can no longer operate with the current models,” he explained.

Dismantled, it became a series of works that express the youths’ creativity and talent. From its metallic parts emerged small figures of soccer players, painted and set in bases, which are used as trophies for this popular sport.

When there are materials that CRC cannot re-use, the centre itself makes sure they are properly disposed of. Still in its early stages, a market is developing in Brazil in which companies collect electronic waste – “e-lixo”, in Portuguese – that comes from computers, electronics and cell phones.

One of the companies is Lorene. “We process some 200 tons of e-waste per month,” says production manager Eduardo Manuel Ribeiro de Almeida.

From that processing come precious metals like gold, silver, platinum, palladium and copper, which are put back into the productive chain, reducing the demand for mining, according to Almeida.

CRC coordinator Postingher, who holds graduate degrees in information technology and theology, pointed out future challenges. “In 2008, there were 12 million computers sold in this country. That means that in two or three years they will need to be disposed of.”

In addition to adapting to new technologies, he said, it is essential to train professionals with a global vision.

Attuned to the debates about green computer technologies, Postingher noted that one of the main problems of technology centres is how to save electricity.

One possibility, he said, is to use one virtual computer server that administers 10 services at the same time, reducing the number of computers needed – and thus reducing the energy consumed.

“This change in mentality is difficult, because everyone wants to consume. We must prepare people for the future, and that requires education,” Postingher said.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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